The Most Important Questions to Ask a Lawyer in an Interview
Are you facing civil or criminal legal proceedings? Are you starting a small business and need some advice on how to best structure it? Regardless of your particular situation, there are dozens of reasons why you might need to enlist the professional services of an experienced attorney.
But you can’t just go with the first lawyer a friend recommends or that you find on Google. It’s about finding the ideal lawyer for your situation. As the client, you’ll need to conduct thorough interviews to gauge whether or not they’re a good fit for your precise needs.
If you want to ensure that the interview process is productive, it’s essential to ask the right questions before you decide on hiring a lawyer. To that end, we’ve compiled a list of the most important questions to ask a lawyer in an interview so that you’re prepared for the road ahead. Read on to find out what they are.
Questions to Ask a Lawyer in an Interview
Finding the most qualified lawyer for your case can and should take some time and effort. Screening for the right one should be rigorous, especially if it means your livelihood hangs in the balance. Remember that they’ve invested years of their lives studying and practicing law, so their services won’t come cheap—nor should they. In a Forbes article entitled Nothing is More Expensive Than a Cheap Lawyer, Amy Anderson writes:
One of the biggest mistakes I made early on as an entrepreneur was hiring cheap lawyers or not using an expensive lawyer nearly enough, thinking I was saving money for my business. But over the years, the school of hard knocks taught me just how expensive cheap legal help can be.
Whether you need guidance and support with your fledgling business, or you have a pressing legal battle ahead, it’s paramount that you refuse to settle in the name of saving a dollar or a few hours of your time. If you need a lawyer for whatever reason, you must be demanding and rigorous in your search for the optimal partner. With that in mind, dedicate the time needed to prepare a thoughtful interview. Below, you’ll discover some general questions you should ask and then more case-specific questions that you might consider bringing up.
The following are general topics of discussion you should review with any attorney you sit down to interview regardless of the particulars of your case.
1. Are you a generalist or a specialist? – Since the legal field covers a broad swath of industries and subject matters, it’s exceedingly rare to find a lawyer who’s well versed in several sects of law. Typically, as is the case for most professionals, they tend to specialize and focus on a specific legal field. For example, a lawyer might concentrate on any of the following areas of legal practice:
- Bankruptcy Law – Deals with insolvency problems for both individuals and businesses. They are experts in the U.S. Bankruptcy Code as well as United States Codes.
- Business (Corporate) Law – Helps facilitate the creation, dissolution, and best legal practices for corporations. They handle mergers and acquisitions, corporate disputes, liability issues, state and federal compliance, and patents.
- Civil Rights Law – Focuses on assisting individuals or groups of individuals who are dealing with discrimination and/or unfair practices that possibly infringe upon their constitutional rights and civil liberties.
- Criminal Law – Handles issues pertaining to individual liberty and behaviors that may be considered illegal under U.S. criminal codes.
- Defense Attorney – Defend the accused of their crimes as is their constitutional right.
- Prosecuting Attorney – Prosecutes the case on behalf of the federal or state government, or a wronged party.
- Entertainment Law – Deals with issues largely related to Intellectual Property law, rights, royalties, and contracts.
- Environmental Law – Enforces regulations, statutes, treaties, or conventions according to state or federal laws. Often handle land disputes, natural resource management, pollution, or unsafe practices.
- Family Law – Manages legal disputes between individuals in a family. Common matters in family law include divorce, custody, adoption, child welfare, child abuse, marriages, and civil unions.
- Real Estate Law – Encompasses issues pertaining to land or construction on property in relation to ownership, development, disputes, or tenant rights.
- Tax Law – Stay apprised with the most recent updates and modifications to local, state, and federal tax codes to reduce potential liability.
Naturally, it’s important that you find a lawyer whose area of expertise matches your specific needs. If you’re going through a divorce, a tax lawyer won’t be of much help. So, although you can obtain the services of a general practitioner of the law, it’s often better to select the best fit for your case.
2. How long have you practiced law? – This is a critical question to ask a lawyer because it takes years of time and practice for a lawyer to become an expert in their legal field. Therefore, it’s essential that you find an attorney that has at least 10 to 15 years of litigation experience, particularly if you expect to go to trial. Ideally, your lawyer would have twice that amount of years practicing the law under their belt.
There are without a doubt always exceptions to the general rule, but on the whole, you’ll want a veteran on your side; someone who’s fought the same battle a hundred times and knows what’s necessary to win.
3. Do you have previous experience handling a case, project, or a company such as mine? – It’s not just the amount of experience that matters, but the relevant experience. Don’t settle for a yes or no answer. Ask for details, examples, or cases that are relevant to your own. Query about outcomes, issues they faced, or what they would’ve done differently knowing what they know now.
4. How do you negotiate? – How your lawyer approaches dispute resolutions, negotiations, or contracts matters deeply. Since contracts are the lifeblood of the business world, they demand a facilitator. Many people falsely believe that you want a cutthroat bulldog who won’t settle for anything but the very best deal for their client, or who will draft a one-sided agreement in the hopes that the other party won’t quibble. Frankly, this is wrong.
A great lawyer will work to draft fair and balanced agreements that are wins for both sides. At the same time, they’ll work tirelessly to shield you from being taken advantage of. Despite the television tropes, integrity matters, particularly in the business world. When you have a just mediator as opposed to a snake oil salesman, they can ease possibly contentious negotiations. Faster and more efficiently handled proceedings result in three favorable outcomes:
- Less money you must spend.
- Decreased drama you must deal with.
- Lowered tensions leading to better relationships between the two parties.
5. What is your fee structure and billing process? – The costs involved will depend heavily upon the particulars of your case. You must ask them if there is a flat fee or if it depends on the situation. Possible fees might include:
- Hourly rate – This the most common fee associated. Depending on the lawyer and their firm, it could vary from a $100 per hour to $1000s per hour.
- Flat fee – These are an option for cases that are more predictable, such as the drawing up of an estate plan. If this is what they offer, make sure to ask whether or not there are services and expenses that aren’t covered.
- Contingent fee – The lawyer agrees to charge zero fees in exchange for a percentage of the settlement or judgment, if the case is won. Although they can be negotiated, a contingency fee basis is generally at least a third of the total settlement.
- Retainer fee – An advanced payment system based upon their hourly rate. You would need to put the retainer into an account and your lawyer would deduct fees as he goes about the process.
- Statutory fee – Some forms of legal work have legally set fees involved.
Once you’ve gone over payment, request an estimate of total cost. Although, in many cases, it’s impossible to give you an on-the-number appraisal, having a ballpark figure can help you determine if you can afford it and then budget accordingly.
6. Who else in the firm would work on my case? – There are typically several others involved in handling your case, including other lawyers, junior attorneys, and paralegals. If others are involved (especially less experienced members), confirm that their hours will be billed at a lower rate.
7. How long should I expect to retain your services? – Similar to billing, it’s important to make queries as to the estimated timeframe of legal actions. Again, it may be difficult to ascertain an exact figure, but having a rough idea of how long resolution will take can help you prepare for the road ahead, particularly when it comes to budgeting.
If you expect to go to court, there are some specific questions you should ask. Prior to that, you should thoroughly brief your potential attorney as to the details and context surrounding of your case. The more information you provide, the better they’ll be able to expound upon the various legal matters.
Litigation-related questions to ask a lawyer in an interview include:
1. How many court and jury trials have you done and what is your win percentage? – If you expect your case to go to trial—for example, if you are trying to find a lawyer for personal injury and/or wrongful death case, then it’s important that you have a lawyer who has actually spent time in court.
You might be surprised by the fact that a significant majority of lawyers never go to court. TV might have you believe that 99% of a lawyer’s time takes place in the midst of a trial, wherein they wax poetic soliloquies, convince jurors, and outrage judges with their antics; but in truth, the vast majority of lawsuits wind up in a settlement. As a result, even your average litigator won’t spend a substantial portion of their time in the courtroom.
2. What is the chance that I receive a favorable outcome? – Before you dive in and begin spending money on a lawyer’s services, it’s important to see if they honestly believe you have a case, and one that is also winnable—or at least worth the risk. This gives you a chance to gauge their honesty, particularly if you receive different or more realistic answers from other parties. You don’t want pie-in-the-sky guarantees, you want pragmatism.
3. What are the risks if the case does fail? – This is a good follow up question to the one above, since it’s imperative that you’re completely aware of the hazards of potential failure. Your would-be lawyer can walk you through a cost-benefit analysis of what you stand to gain and lose. If the risks outweigh the rewards, sometimes it’s better to settle or to not press charges at all. You want a candid lawyer who will paint a vivid picture of what is to be expected.
They should also raise the matter of potential liabilities if the trial is lost. It’s vital you’re aware of whether or not you could be held liable for the other side’s attorney fees should you lose.
4. What are the odds of a settlement? – The vast majority of litigious matters skip trial and end with a settlement. The better your case, the more likely the other party will be willing to settle in order to avoid a losing trial. Being able to expedite matters and skip months of legal battles is typically a more favorable result.
5. How long should I expect this to take? – Some lawsuits can last but months, while others go on for decades. The longer they go, the more expensive they’ll be. Knowing the estimated timeframe will help you forecast your costs and make an informed decision.
Interviewing an Attorney
Finding the right representation takes time. You need to thoroughly weigh your options and do everything in your power to enlist the best law firm for your particular case. To provide further clarity, you must ask poignant questions such as those discussed above. Their answers will help you decipher whether they’re a good match according to personality, suitability, experience, reputation, and temperament.
Briggs Law Corporation has been representing San Diego county small businesses and community activists since 2002. As a boutique law firm, our mission is to provide top-notch, personalized legal services to anyone who walks through our doors. If you sit down in an interview with us, you can be assured that we can and will answer all of these questions and any others you might have. We pride ourselves in the work we do and the bonds we forge.
“This blog article is for informational purposes only, and is not a substitute for client- and fact-specific legal advice from a qualified attorney.”
Anderson, A. Forbes. Nothing is More Expensive Than a Cheap Lawyer. (2013). https://www.forbes.com/sites/amyanderson/2013/06/04/nothing-is-more-expensive-than-a-cheap-lawyer/#719a5bde7d10
The Lawyer Portal. Areas of Legal Practice – Different Types of Law. https://www.thelawyerportal.com/free-guides/areas-legal-practice/
Bovarnick, R. Forbes. How to Hire a Lawyer. (2008). https://www.forbes.com/2008/10/08/hiring-legal-help-ent-law-cx_rb_1008bovarnickhire.html#2cbffc508d9a